A Confederacy of ?: Kathleen Porter-Magee is only partly right: Opponents of implementing Common Core reading and math standards can fight something with plenty of nothing. History is replete with examples of people opposed to any reform or social movement strongly fighting, and even winning winning for a time. Defenders of Britain’s slave trade successfully worked for two decades to stop evangelicals such as William Wilberforce from ending this form of human trafficking with almost nothing in the way of reasonable or logical argument. And so far, Common Core foes have managed to score at least a few small victories by temporarily halting implementation of the standards in Indiana and Michigan (as well as getting Georgia to withdraw from the PARCC and Smarter Balanced coalitions developing exams aligned to the standards).

wpid-threethoughslogo.pngBut Porter-Magee does have an implicit point: Common Core opponents can’t sustain victories for the long term unless they come up with a compelling counter-proposal for addressing the problems of shoddy curricula and low-quality teaching at the heart of the nation’s education crisis. But they can’t. Why? Because this collection of movement conservatives, school choice-as-silver-bullet oriented conservative reformers, and hardcore progressives within traditionalist circles can craft an alternative vision that doesn’t expose conflicts between their respective visions.

School choice-oriented conservative  reformers such as Greg Forster of the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation and University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene are already attempting to tout that expanding choice would lead to the advent of a wide array of high-quality standards. From where they sit, choice is the best and most-effective solution for advancing systemic reform because it can lead to the innovation of standards and curricula. Your editor has already Ginzu-knifed this perspective because it fails to realize the limits of choice in fostering curricula and standards development. But there’s another reason why it won’t work as a solution around which Common Core foes can rally: The strong opposition against expanding choice from traditionalists in the anti-Common Core ranks.

Another solution, this time from traditionalists, lies in forcing all children to attend traditional district schools that they prefer. This would start by shutting down private schools to which wealthy and middle class families send their kids, and then, closing the very charter schools they despise. But this would never fly among conservative counterparts in the anti-Common Core crowd, especially conservative reformers, for whom choice is the most-important solution for improving student achievement. The fact that traditionalists can’t force such moves without violating the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1925 ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which bans states from barring the existence of private and parochial schools, along with the strong support for expanding choice throughout the nation, also makes the entire idea a nonstarter.

For those conservatives and progressives who come from the view that education is nothing more than indoctrination? There’s not a whole lot they could bring to the table. This is because their Manichean view of curricula forbids them from considering for a moment that education is hardly capable of indoctrinating anyone. Famed economist Friedrich Von Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom that higher levels of education usually equal more differentiation in views and beliefs. He remains correct decades later. Of course, perhaps that reality is the very reason why both camps are so opposed to Common Core in the first place. Such anti-intellectualism would prove to be frustrating to other Common Core foes with a more-thoughtful view of what education does for children.

As for movement conservatives? Depends on the conservative. Those who are more philosophically-oriented would work to defend the myth of local control that they hold dear. But that would then lead to confrontation with conservative reformers (who realize that traditional districts are the biggest obstacles to the expansion of choice), as well as traditionalists (who don’t think much of local control either, in spite of statements to the contrary). Ideological conservatives, on the other hand, are more-likely to support conservative reformers and oppose just about everything hardcore progressive traditionalists hold dear. As for the likes of syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin and talk show host Glenn Beck? They’re merely cynical entertainers who mix ideology with show business.

What would likely happen is that Common Core foes would agree that comprehensive college preparatory standards do matter. So the various groups and individuals opposing the standards — including outfits such as the Pioneer Institute as well as the American Principles Project — would come together and formulate their own, then have them approved by state boards of education, governors, and state schools chiefs throughout the country (as well as by districts on their own in every city). But then they would end up developing their own form of Common Core the same way the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers did four years ago when they developed Common Core. It would be also similar to what standards-and-accountability advocates and reform-minded governors did in the last decade through Achieve Inc.’s efforts to set stringent graduation standards.

For that to happen, Common Core foes would have to find some common ground beyond opposing the standards. The problem? They have none. The generally positive (if at times, overly dependent on silver bullet thinking) vision of Conservative and libertarian reformers — one which they share with other reformers backing Common Core — has nothing in common with the failed, amoral thinking of the likes of Susan Ohanian and Diane Ravitch. Movement conservatives, who generally have no concern for education policy, would likely side with the conservative reformers in their ranks. But those who come out of suburbia would also end up sharing the same Poverty Myth of Education-type thinking that are the calling card for traditionalists. Unlike the school reform movement, who share a positive vision for American public education (even when they disagree on the details), Common Core foes couldn’t craft a mission statement beyond “we hate national standards, the Obama Administration, and the Gates Foundation”.

A coalition only based on mutual loathing of an issue or idea alone cannot sustain itself for very long. This should be no comfort to Common Core allies, who must actually work on implementation (and, when considering that the coalition includes the likes of the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten, also lacks a shared vision). At the same time, it also means that Common Core allies can succeed if they do their jobs right, which will force Common Core foes to splinter apart. Time to get to work.


When Supplement Not Supplant is Preferable to AYP: When those who run districts aren’t complaining about the No Child Left Behind Act’s increasingly-neutered accountability provisions, they are carping about a provision in the law that can be summarized in three words: Supplement not supplant. A legacy of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed five decades ago, the supplement not supplant rule is geared toward keeping states and districts from using federal Title 1 dollars to subsidize the instruction and curricular activities they were already funding out of their own coffers. Because the purpose of Title 1 is to provide additional support for children from poor and minority backgrounds, any use of the subsidies for general school operations (including for kids from the middle class) is a violation of federal law.

While the idea of supplement not supplant made sense from a compliance perspective, the rule can end up complicating the work of reform-minded state and district school leaders (especially those who are implementing programs approved by the Obama Administration under Race to the Top); supplement not supplant is one reason why New York City’s effort a decade ago to implement a weighted student funding formula within its district was opposed so strenuously by the Empire State’s education department (which worried that melding Title 1 funds into other funding without some sort of tracking would lead to both the city and state running afoul of federal law). The law’s complexity ends also leads to such perverse actions by district such as using Title 1 dollars to finance field trips instead of improving student achievement. Add in the murky nature of school finance, the shoddy financial controls endemic within most districts, and the fact that most school dollars are used to fund teacher salaries (and thus, end up being subject to the peculiarities of seniority-based privileges and other aspects of traditional teacher compensation), and it becomes hard for any district or state to avoid violating supplement not supplant.

Beltway reformers and traditionalists spend plenty of time holding conferences about supplement not supplant. Wonks gripe about this bit of red tape on the pages of Education Week and other outlets. Yet few states (and even fewer districts) have lobbied hard for the Obama Administration to either waive supplement not supplant through a number of ways, including eliminating the “cost-by-cost” rule  Nor have states pushed for the Obama Administration to use its effort to eviscerate No Child’s accountability provisions to help them to get from under other compliance-oriented elements of No Child that are legacies of the original ESEA.

Why haven’t they done so? Simple. For all the bellyaching about supplement not supplant, it is merely a compliance matter, one for which districts and states have long ago developed processes to address it. More importantly, few districts and states ever get dinged on not complying with supplement no supplant, and when they do, there is media coverage of it, thus leaving almost no opportunity for public embarrassment. Even if there were news coverage of alleged (and real) violations, the legalese is so indecipherable that the eyes of the public would collectively glaze over. This fact is also true for other legacy aspects of No Child, including comparability and maintenance of effort requirements for districts show that they are not using Title 1 funds to replace state and local funding for poor kids. Which is the way districts and states like it. They would rue the day someone simplifies the meaning of supplement not supplant, and explains why it was put into place (the concerns among many, including Robert F. Kennedy, about the lack of accountability for federal education subsidies that has borne out to be real). Besides, as anyone observing the history of American public education between the passage of ESEA and the reauthorization 11 years  ago that led to No Child can succinctly explain, points out that supplement not supplant has done very little to actually hold districts and states accountable for how they spent taxpayer funds. For all intents and purposes, as a form of compliance and accountability, supplement not supplant is mere window-dressing.

Accountability rules of any kind — especially No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions — are different stories altogether. The very revelations emerging from AYP of how poorly districts and states were doing in improving the achievement of children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — are both embarrassing and very public. Same is true of the research and news stories that revealed how states and districts inflated graduation rates and concealed the true number of children dropping out of school and into economic despair. The data from AYP also allowed reform-minded governors and legislators to force implementation of reforms that suburban districts, teachers’ unions, and others strongly opposed. The public may not understand all that is calculated through AYP, but they do understand what it means for a school to be found to be persistently failing. For traditionalists within districts and for politicians at the state level who do their bidding, nothing good for them can come out of any accountability measure. Unlike supplement not supplant, shining light on how poorly districts and states are serving kids can result in real consequences that weaken their defense of policies and practices that have contributed to the nation’s education crisis.

None of this is to say that supplement not supplant isn’t a real problem for the efforts of reform-minded states and districts. It’s just that if the rule was such a burden, it would have already been written out of law. Which serves as a clear reminder that actions, not words, are the clearest signifier of what is really a concern for districts, states, and the people who lead them. And based on the action over the No Child waivers, supplement not supplant is no concern at all.

Photo courtesy of The Signal.

Photo courtesy of The Signal.

School Reform is No Bloodless Exercise, Part MMMM: As your editor, I have one simple rule: No one, save my wife, has any say on the decisions I make in running this publication. And she only gets it because, well, I live with her and she can offer compelling arguments for position she takes. This doesn’t mean I won’t consider the views of others. I have changed at least one headline because of objections from readers and others. I listen closely to the opinions of Dropout Nation‘s contributing editors when they offer them. I also look to guidance from fellow editors and writers I know and trust. Headlines are often revised long before the pieces are run because I’ve learned all too well that haste has its consequences; the first thought is not always the best. But at the end of the day, the editorial judgment about what runs on Dropout Nation. along with headlines choices and graphic decisions, are mine alone. And my decisions are made without fear or favor to anyone.

So you can imagine I didn’t take too kindly to the complaint from Thomas B. Fordham Institute honcho Mike Petrilli that the headline for yesterday’s critique of California Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to eviscerate all but a few of the Golden State’s battery of standardized tests. From where Petrilli sat, the “hyperbole” of the headline was unfair because he feels that there’s no evidence that Gov. Brown “doesn’t care about kids’. [The headline, by the way, didn’t insist that Brown didn’t care about children, but about their futures.] More importantly, Petrilli didn’t like the fact that I called out Brown’s decision. Wrote Petrilli: “But why make it personal? This is a governor who started a charter school for needy kids, among other things.”

Since I respect Mike’s opinions and perspectives (even when I strongly disagree with him on so many of them), and he was one of the first people who gave me a gig in the education policy arena, I figure I owe him a more-thoughtful response. And the reasons for choosing the headline are both journalistic and at the heart of Dropout Nation‘s mission.

The  journalistic reason: Magazines and newspapers are in the business of both getting to the point and grabbing reader attention. It’s just that simple. This cannot be done with mealy-mouthed headlines. Getting readers to read (and, more importantly, telegraphing to them what to expect from the piece), even to the point of the tabloid headlines that are the staple of the Daily News and The New York Post is what is expected and demanded by readers. It also attracts new readers and lives on even when the pieces themselves are no longer relevant or remembered. It is why so many people remember “Ford to New York City: Drop Dead”, “U.S. Declares War, Pacific Battle Widens”, and “Sticks Nix Hick Pix”.

Certainly I wouldn’t suggest such an approach to messaging in my other role as an adviser to education policy outfits and advocates. This is because such organizations have a different role to play than that of media outlets, even ones such as Dropout Nation, which combine reporting with strong points of view. But for media outlets, such headlines are not only appropriate, they are to be expected. Petrilli may not understand or appreciate it (after all, he’s a wonk, not a reporter or editorialist). But it is what it is. And that’s that.

The other reason lies with the very mission of Dropout Nation, which is goes beyond journalistic (even as it works within the confines of what reporting and editorializing is supposed to be): This publication not only exists to push for a revolution in American public education that helps all children succeed in school and life. It also exists to speak truth to those with power and influence. After all, your editor and the other contributors speak for the children, families and communities who are affected the most by the consequences of the policies and practices that are the underlying culprits behind the nation’s education crisis. It is personal, especially for yours truly. Every child reminds me of myself when I was young, every parent of my mother and grandmother when they were raising my cousins, siblings, aunts, and I. And someone who will become a father to a young black man, someone who must rightfully worry about the consequences of decisions above on the life of my son below, there’s just no way to disconnect the decisions leaders make from the impact on the lives of real live people.

This is not a bloodless exercise, and not a public policy game. Our kids, including Mike’s kids and my own, get only one chance every day to get ready for the future – and we only get this time, right now, to help them make their ambitions real. This doesn’t mean being dogmatic, but being what Martin Luther King called creative radicals unashamedly, unapologetically pursuing systemic reform for both our kids who get the least and our youngsters blessed with abundance. This means challenging everyone, including Gov. Brown (who may be well-meaning in his intentions, but wrong in his actions) to live up to the best within themselves. And for this, I can never apologize.

Editor’s Note: The Errata section got so long that it is now a separate piece.

Photo courtesy of Steven Hronek.